“Everyone, please quite down.” Mrs. Perkins- 100lbs of stressed English teacher in black slacks and faded Grammar Police t-shirt- sounds like a cheap answering machine through her electric megaphone, “You, James Hinton, sit down!”
The gym is a sweltering mass of heads, arms, and backpacks, with nearly nine-hundred of America’s finest seated on bleachers designed for about half that, back when only white kids could go to West Greenville High School and James Dean was still the nations heartthrob.
“Move over, I can’t feel my legs?” June pushes me into Grace.
“Well, don’t shove her into me!” Grace pushes me back.
“There isn’t room to move!” I snap, wiping sweat from my forehead, hating being the cream to their Oreo cookie, “You’ll just have to deal with it.”
Normally, being social leapers and all, we’d have all the space we wanted, but this isn’t the lunch room or the coke machines before first period. Instead, it’s a full assembly with the entire WGHS student body crammed into an unairconditioned gym like dispossessed Jews into a cattle car, our social distinctions evaporating along with our humanity.
“We know the air is not working so we’ll make this quick.” Mrs. Perkins, megaphone still in hand, shuffles through a handful of papers, spilling half of them on the floor. Weak applause wafts up from the pothead section near the emergency exit. She ignores them and begins reading off the final exam scheduled, mentioning by grade the state’s required tests and what will happen when some students inevitably fail. “So study hard, your future and our funding depends on it.”
“There she is.” June jabs me in the ribs and points to the wall behind the basketball goal. There two dozen students sit, fidgeting. Mrs. Woods and Vice Principal Gamble watch over them like nervous prison guards during a shakedown. “The one with the purple shoes.”
I look closer and spot Penelope Coyne slumped against the wall, bored . “What’s so special about her?”
“Just look at her!” June points. You’d thought I’d been sleeping and just missed Mount Rushmore, the Washington Monument, and the Statue of Library passing by the window. “Look close.”
I look again, taking mental notes this time. She’s pale, bone thin and shorter than any of us. Leaned back against the wall with her legs stretched out, shes wearing an off-white skirt that covers everything down to her knees and an off-white top that droops form her shoulders like a damp towel. Her arms and shins and around the nape of her neck seem to be covered with tattoos. Is that legal?
“I’ve talked to her a few times and she’s a bad a**.” June says, not taking her eye off Penelope, or maybe, like me, off her purple Chuck Taylor’s. “And being with you two goody goodies all the time is making me soft. Casi no hablo español más.” This is something she’s been complaining about, saying with revulsion that her edge has dulled to sharpness of a butter knife, that she’s even thought of going to church with us, if just for the free Sunday morning doughnuts.
“I know that girl.” Grace says, leaning in close, “They say she’s a lesbian. Look at her hair.”
“They say we’re lesbians.” June retorts, “And besides, what if she was? It’s not contagious. You won’t wake up tomorrow wanting to munch carpet.”
“Still, it’s really short.” Grace grimaces. You’d thought Penelope just blew her a kiss. “It’s weird.”
I hate giving in to rumors (believing them things of the Devil) but Grace is right. Pen’s brown hair is short, real short, like power haircut, Freddie Prince Jr. short. And her ears are huge, protruding from her pale head like the open doors of white sedan.
“She has some big ears.” I say.
“They are!” June laughs.
“Shhhh!” Mrs. Bates, the office assistant assigned hoodlum duty, hisses from behind us. For being two-hundred pounds of grey haired frustration she can be sneaky.
June makes the zip my lips and throw away the key gesture, pleasing the geriatric beast enough to send her on. She quickly finds some jocks to harass.
“I’m going to introduce you three in a few days,” June says, then eyeing Grace with the closeness of a mother, “and you’re going to play nice.”
Mrs. Perkins has moved on with her announcements and is reiterating parking lot rules: no parking on the grass, no double stacking, don’t block walkways, etc. Her megaphone gives out half way and she has to yell. Half the students simultaneously lean in to hear. The other half could care less. “…Oh and I forgot, for those of you that do well during Test Week we’ll have May Day.” Mrs. Perkins smiles at perhaps the only West Greenville event that can be called a tradition, “Those details will be sent out during Homeroom Monday.”
“There’s Sunny and Oliver.” Grace points to the end of the bleachers where my brother and Sunny are sitting, pressed together like two turkeys shoved into the same oven.
“Sunny’s eyebrows have grown back.” I say, studying the slim brown lines above his eyes. I know he must be relived.
“Si, lo tienen.” June says, eyes still on Penelope, “Look.”
Vice Principle Gamble is looking down at June’s new prospect, yammering on, his manicured index finger waving. He tapes Pen’s right Chuck Taylor with his loafer. She obliges and pulls her legs up, curling them Indian style, out of the walkway. She smiles up at him, Sorry, she says. When he leaves she stretches back out, straightening the wrinkles in her skirt with one hand and waving him the bird with the other.
“Mierda!” June laughs, clapping loudly. You’d thought she’d just seen Apollo landing or witnessed the Second Coming. The World’s eyes turn towards us. “I bet she has some hairy balls!”
“You there!” Mrs. Bates scuttles back our way. “Big girl with the black hair,” She doesn’t even know her name! “Come with me.”
June doesn’t fight it, caring about as much as a blind man at a beauty contest, and makes her way down the bleachers, bowling over half the student body. She wears the same lucid smile I’ve seen worn by new mothers and brides to be.